Executive development... are you getting the most out of your investment? Using strategic group projects

By Lester Coupland

Header-Group-Projects-Unsplash395888.jpgWhen assessing return on investment with regard to executive leadership development there are some key questions to consider including: 

  • Is the development focused on organisational and leadership challenges that clearly justify such investment in the eyes of stakeholders?
  • What are the barriers that affect these challenges?
  • What approaches and ways of working will help participants to address these challenges?
  • What are the benefits of using a particular approach?

Strategic group projects are an approach which are frequently used in executive leadership development programmes. Here we will explore those four key questions in relation to that specific approach. 

Is the development focused on organisational and leadership challenges that clearly justify such investment in the eyes of stakeholders?

The need for organisations to innovate and rethink their products, services and processes is nothing new. The constant changes in customer expections, the business environment, the competitor landscape, etc. make this a relentless inevitability and therefore employees expect that type of change. But when an organisation decides to either create a new business model or a new platform business, within an existing organisational structure and culture, it is a very new kind of disruption. Yet this is arguably THE leadership challenge of the next decade for some organisations if they are to survive and prosper. 

What are the barriers that affect these challenges?

All manner of barriers will stand in the way of this leadership challenge; how can executives be open, agile, adaptive and courageous enough to challenge the sacred cows and even propose (let alone lead an organisation towards) a new paradigm? Do they have the resilience, intellectual and political capability to lead such dynamic and organisational change? How can they dismantle existing power structures and manage the impact on multiple and diverse layers of their organisation? Are they able to engage and align in such a way as to balance 'business as usual' and the 'business of transformational change?' And how do they know they are right?

What approaches and ways of working will help participants to address these challenges?

If an organisation is to respond to such complex questions they need to look towards different types of shared and distributed leadership responses which draw more on the collective effort, wisdom, intelligence and creativity at different levels and functions of their own organisation, and those of other organisations. An organisation also need to look how they allow more people to genuinely have a strong sense of psychological ownership and as such 'work on as well as in the business'.

In the words of my Cranfield colleagues Professor Kim Turnbull James and Professor David Denyer, ''the work of leadership needs to transcend formal hierarchies and involve multiple actors. A mindset shift from leader-driven change to leadership-enabled change is at the heart of our approach to working with clients on intractable, messy problems.'' 

We believe that truly effective leadership development is driven by the priority challenges facing the business rather than the latest topics and fads which make for attractive-looking sessions. We are therefore keen to integrate a number of these wicked problems into our leadership development programmes in the form of group-based strategic projects. 

A recent McKinsey Report pinpointed a number of elements that matter most in leadership development which echo this approach; namely, contextualising the programme based on the organisation's position and strategy and ensuring sufficient reach across the organisation. 

A new report from the FT / IE Corporate Learning Alliance reveals that corporate learning and leadership development providers need to ensure their programmes always focus on real-world business challenges and practical solutions.   

What are the benefits of using a particular approach?

Strategic group projects have several benefits: Participants will:

  • Know (and feel) that they are working on something ‘real’ and are therefore likely to engage with greater motivation.
  • Relate better to any taught material as they have a chance to test it out its validity and credibility.
  • Work through all the phases of the learning cycle (conceptualise, experiment, act and reflect) several times.
  • Increase their knowledge of the wider business through interacting with project colleagues from different divisions / functions. 
  • Be stretched and pushed to work outside their comfort zone by having to address a business challenge which is complex and which demands more than applying known solutions. 
  • Have a reason to network with colleagues both on and outside the programme. 
  • Build up their collaborative working skills and deepen their emotional intelligence. 
  • Be able to engage with senior sponsors and mentors to draw upon their experience and expertise; and these senior leaders, through engaging with participants, will not only learn more about what is happening in different business units but will also gain a better picture of the talent resource within the organisation.

So when it comes to gaining return on investment, there are many far-reaching and long-lasting advantages to including group-based strategic projects within an executive leadership development programme. 

However, integrating such an approach is not a move to be taken lightly or blindly. In order to derive maximum value, we have found from our own experience that there are 8 key practices which need to be factored into the design stage of leadership development programmes.  

As you work internally with colleagues to design your own leadership development programmes, or you decide to engage an external provider of leadership development, consider these practices. In this way you will know what critical actions have to be taken.....and the key questions you need to ask of others.

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